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Sustainable agriculture has become a trendy phrase more associated with marketing than agriculture, losing meaning and getting tangled up with the term organic agriculture. So, what is sustainable agriculture, and is it necessarily organic?
New Mexico State University professors Mark Uchanski and Kulbhushan Grover, both from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, explained that the definition of sustainable agriculture implies it can be maintained for a long time, but many and varied interpretations have sprouted over the years, leaving growers and consumers confused.
“First, we need to look at the models – the industrial model which focuses on maximizing productivity while damaging other things or creating pollution and sustainable, which is about optimizing productivity while maintaining everything else,” Grover said.
The “everything else” refers to a concept called the three-legged stool. Each leg is important for the balance of the stool to keep it from falling. Each leg represents a vital part of sustainable agriculture.
“There are three goals to sustainable agriculture: one is economics, so any sustainable agriculture has to make profit. Second, ecological, which deals with making money but not at the cost of the environment. The last one, equity, which is more philosophical – it means it is good for society,” Grover said.
Grover and Uchanski answer the six most common questions about sustainable agriculture:
What is sustainable agriculture?
“It seems that every one has their own definition,” Uchanski said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture may have a slightly different definition, but I argue that the basic component of meeting the needs of people, economics and the environment is always part of it.”
“One example is having a farm operation where everything is done right – no tilling, treating their employees well, but they go out of business because they don’t know how to market themselves. Unfortunately, many community supported agricultural businesses have faded away even though they are doing the right process, but they are not making a profit, so the three-legged stool falls without one of the Es supporting it, in this case the economics.”
Grover stressed that it is important to take into account where you live. What may be sustainable for the Southwest may not necessarily be sustainable for other parts of the country.
Why is there confusion about sustainable agriculture?
“It is called greenwashing instead of brainwashing,” Uchanski said. “The huge corporations, which are not very sustainable, started throwing that word around and no one is really fact-checking. Being green or sustainable is being used as a marketing tool. I am afraid that sustainability may become a marketing tool because there are so many interpretations, but ultimately if you really scrutinize, very few approaches are truly, truly sustainable.”
Is sustainable agriculture organic?
“Organic agriculture is one way to be sustainable,” Grover said. “There are other ways to be sustainable, like cover cropping.”
It is also the case that organic production may not be sustainable. As Uchanski explained, a farm where food is organically grown and workers are not treated fairly cannot be considered a sustainable operation.
Unlike sustainable agriculture, organic production has enforceable policies and the consumer knows what he or she is buying and how food was produced, but there is no external review for sustainability.
“Almost all the companies that claim that their products are sustainably grown have no backbone at all,” Uchanski added. “If you buy organic, you know how the product was grown and handled because you have to follow the rules if you are certified organic.”
If sustainable is better for the long run, why is it not enforced?
“Any move toward that direction is a good move, especially within our systems,” Uchanski said. “We can always do better, but it doesn’t mean that what we are doing is bad.”
Grover said for the industrial models, which focus on profit, it would be harder and maybe even costly to become more sustainable, using cover crops, having better wages and polluting less.
“In this industrial model, food is considered a commodity, like any other factory. That is called factory farming,” Grover added. “But in sustainable agriculture, food is unique in that people who farm and consume it have a connection to food.”
Does culture play a role in sustainability?
“I think it is important to look at age, culture and traditions,” Grover said. “Growers or farmers sometimes follow the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, so it hard to change ideas or behaviors that may be considered traditions.”
He added most farmers want to take care of their land and have sustainable production, but some have been forced to stray away from that model because they will not be eligible for subsidies, consequently they will not have money to maintain their operations.
“Again, part of being sustainable is making money, and farmers want to do good but they cannot be sustainable just for the sake of the environment; they have obligations and families,” Grover said.
Uchanski said more incentives are needed for growers and farmers to take steps toward becoming more sustainable.
What are the benefits of being or becoming sustainable?
Both Uchanski and Grover agreed there are many benefits to being sustainable – benefits to the planet and communities by conserving water, taking care of the soil, producing less pollution, treating people fairly and having a closer connection to the food we consume.
© 2013 New Mexico State University Board of Regents
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